February 4, 2012

Tough road ahead, say donors and opposition / Judicial workers strike continues

According to opposition parties and donors Malawi faces a tough road ahead following President Bingu wa Mutharika’s remarks in Parliament when he asked for three years before devaluing the kwacha and accused Western forces of supporting regime change. In an interview after Mutharika’s address, German Ambassador Peter Woeste said the President’s remarks would make it difficult for government to engage with donors. “I am an observer and it’s not our job to criticise anyone but it [speech] doesn’t make things easier. It limits obviously the chance for the government to move towards closer cooperation with the donor community. I am very sceptical,” said Woeste. Head of European Union in Malawi Alexander Baum described Mutharika’s speech as consistent. “It’s consistent. I can’t comment on the details of the speech but what I can say is that it is a very consistent speech. There is nothing that seems very new in terms of his [Mutharika] position on the IMF [International Monetary Fund] and sort of basic economic policies. “It’s very clear that we will have more of what we see,” said Baum.

Leader of Opposition John Tembo said: “I am disappointed. There was nothing new apart from saying that we will have to go through the many problems we have experienced for another three years. … Devaluation is part of the solution to the problems the country is facing. It shows that monetary authority has moved from Reserve Bank of Malawi to State House.” He said he was not aware of any external forces working to topple Mutharika’s administration, saying: “We are working for the welfare of the people.” And UDF chief whip Clement Chiwaya said Mutharika missed an opportunity to explain to Malawians specific steps his administration is taking to resolve the ongoing challenges, including forex and fuel shortages. Nkhotakota Central MP Edwin Banda, who is also a lawyer, said: “The speech was full of English. The civil society works as one of the checks on government. Civil society organisations are not undermining the powers of Parliament. … Parliament passed a resolution to increase salaries for the Judiciary but the same government is failing to implement that. So, who is undermining the authority of Parliament?”

In the meantime, the judicial strike entered its third week. Staff workers throughout the judiciary system want a 50 percent salary increase approved by parliament five years ago. They say they will not return to work unless the government meets their demands. Court marshals, clerks and messengers are among the staff workers who began a sit-in strike on January 9. They want a promised pay increase, but government spokesperson Patricia Kaliati said financial problems made a it impossible for one at this time. She said that negotiations were underway with senor officers of the judiciary to find a solution. On the other hand, spokesperson for the striking workers Austin Kamanga said he wondered why workers in the judicial system were treated differently from other civil servants. Working conditions for workers in the court system are reviewed every three years, while others in government often receive yearly pay increases. According to Kamanga The issue at stake was not as complex as one would want people to believe: “These are straight forward issues that require designated persons to address them.”

The workers held a similar strike in 2008 to force the government to implement the pay increase approved by the legislature two years earlier. But the strike was cancelled three days later after government authorities promised to look into their grievances. They say they’ve been waiting ever since. Kamanga said that time around the negotiations would not make them stop striking. “This is the third time we having such kind of negotiations, and they always come when people have risen up for their rights. Although there are signals, it is difficult for us to trust them. This time we want action, real action. We are continuing with the strike.” Meanwhile a grouping of practicing lawyers the Malawi Law Society has joined a number of organizations and institutions pushing for a speedy resolution to the protest. John Gift Mwakhwawa the law society’s president is seriously concerned: “Junior workers are stopping at nothing, except the implementation of the review. If they continue to strike it means that most of the lawyers are jobless. And it is not only the lawyers who have been affected. There are people who have been remanded in prisons and all these companies have got cases in courts. Those cases are stalling because there is nothing that can be done and that has a negative impact on the economy,” Mwakhwawa asserted.

National Police Spokesperson Davie Chingwalu noted that the strike has led to overcrowding of jail cells across the country. “This strike has affected a lot. As you know, people commit crimes on a daily basis and we are arresting them daily, Chingwalu explained. "As justice dictates once we arrest these suspects, we are supposed to take them before a court of law [and they should be given bail within 48 hours]. So what we are doing right now is to keep them in our cells. Those with minor cases we are giving them bail but those with serious crimes are just taken to prisons to keep them on remand -- although I understand that the prisons are also congested.” (Malawi Today)

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